NYC bus drivers plead for protection

More than 80 bus operators are assaulted every year in New York City, home to the nation's largest bus system.
Associated Press
Aug 15, 2013

Fare increases. Route cuts. General frustration over life. In New York City, there is no shortage of reasons why bus drivers are targeted for assault — an average of 88 attacks every year in the nation's largest bus system.

Jose Rondon's 27-year career as a driver came to an abrupt end last summer at a stop in the Bronx, when a man punched him repeatedly without warning, breaking his nose and bloodying his face.

"He managed to pretty much pummel me," Rondon said. "No driver deserves that — no driver."

To protect its 12,000 drivers, the Metropolitan Transit Authority plans to upgrade buses with surveillance cameras and floor-to-ceiling partitions that separate operators from passengers. Officials say about a quarter of the 5,700-bus fleet has gotten the upgrades so far, which cost at least $2,000 per bus, and the MTA hopes to double that number by 2015.

But the bus operators' union says that the MTA is dragging its heels, and that even its projected installations are not enough.

"They have continued to view the assaults on bus operators as just the cost of doing business in New York City," said John Samuelsen, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 100.

"We share their frustration," said Stephen Vidal, vice president of transportation, safety and training for the MTA bus department. "We're actually trying to turn a fleet that had no barriers into a fleet with them. That's a big challenge. ... I wish we were further along than we are, but I think we're at a point now where we have a critical path."

The MTA says it has been keeping detailed data on assaults only since 2010, a year drivers point out coincides with some of the MTA's most severe service cuts in decades. Thirty-six bus routes and 570 stops were eliminated, as well as three subway lines. Those cuts, drivers say, contributed to an increase in congestion, delays and tension among passengers.

Bus operators work at all hours in all neighborhoods, alone and often with little protection. One driver, Edwin Thomas, was stabbed to death in Brooklyn in 2008 after a disagreement with a passenger. Over the Fourth of July weekend, three operators were assaulted, two with knives.

In addition to assaults, MTA officials log 1,000 annual incidents of harassment, including verbal abuse and spitting.

Female bus drivers, who make up a quarter of the city's bus operators, have complained of gender-based harassment. One female driver recently reported an attempted late-night sexual assault by two young men.

While New York state law provides bus operators with a special "protected status," with assaults punishable by up to seven years in prison, there is little drivers can do to defend themselves against an aggressive passenger.

At an MTA board meeting last month, union members rallied on Madison Avenue as the board members upstairs pledged support for their employees.

"We're going to keep our thinking creatively and working as hard as we can to reach our ultimate goal — which is to have no employees assaulted while on the job," said Tom Prendergast, MTA chairman and CEO, "because an assault on any one of our employees is an assault on us all."

Frank Austin, chairman of the union's Bus Operator Action Committee, testified at the MTA board meeting about the need for action. "Your partitions are being installed like a Band-Aid to a gashing wound," he said.

Other cities have installed similar partitions, including Chicago, Dallas and Baltimore. The Chicago Transit Authority — with its fleet of 1,890 buses — says that 75 percent of its buses have shatter-resistant barriers, and that every single bus has surveillance cameras.

The protections may have come too late for Rondon, whose attacker was recently sentenced to five years' probation. The 59-year-old Rondon ended up retiring after he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I felt that this could happen again, and I was wary of everything that was going on around me," he said. "You can't operate a bus that way."

Comments

grandmasgirl

Why don't they just build little bullet proof boxes around the drivers. Then they can do the same with every seat to protect the riders. This world is getting ridiculous. People have no respect. If the parents started stepping up and smacking their kids when they misbehave, maybe things would change. I am NOT saying to beat them, but if you start a little swat when they are young they will grow up with a little respect.

2cents

"If the parents started stepping up and smacking their kids when they misbehave"

LOL, part of the law problems that started in the 80's, can't do that your kid can sue you, also why kids are so fat another story here today, no more play ground equipment, they get hurt they will sue your city. No dodge ball in the street, you will get arrested, just no more fun for kids, now they push buttons and eat crap food. God am I happy we were able to get hurt in my day, taught us a lot and kept us fit.

doggie mom

The problem isn't the type of discipline it is whether there is any discipline at all! I know that when I was younger I wasn't afraid of jail as much as disappointing my mother! People don't care now cause it is usually the parent in the wrong in the first place...

reporter54

The next thing will be no bus service at all. Actually I am surprised they even have busses running there. Many cities no longer have bus service. I would not want to drive a bus-there or anywhere. Too much chance for violence which is way too prevalent nowadays. Store clerks aren't safe; police aren't safe. There is a prevailing criminal element that will always try to take advantage in situations where they think they can get away with something. The world is in sad shape and I hope that the changes will help the bus drivers but it seems an uphill battle for sure.